Young Doctors Come to See the Elephant Man

Johanna Shapiro, PhD

As part of an eight-week, second-year medical student elective in literature and medicine entitled “Doctor Stories/Patient Stories: The Doctor-Patient Relationship,” one session focuses on the experience of disability from the perspective of patients and physicians. We read poetry, essays, and short stories about a range of disabilities, including multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, stroke, paraplegia, blindness, deafness, and mental retardation. This year, as an optional supplement to these readings, I suggest we read a play, The Elephant Man, by Bernard Pomerance, because of its evocative portrayal of the relationship between patient and doctor. Of ten students enrolled in the class, six agree to participate in three successive evening sessions. Most of the students have heard the phrase Elephant Man used as a linguistic shorthand, in the words of one student, for “someone really ugly.” One student mentions that the Elephant Man was someone who lived a hundred years ago and had a terribly disfiguring medical condition.

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